Surrealism is an artistic movement and philosophy that first gained popularity in the 1920s. Initially, surrealism was an offshoot of Dadaism, which posited that traditional art should be replaced with anything “anti-art” and triumphed the ridiculous, the absurd, and a basic disregard for form. Andre Breton was the initial proponent of surrealism in literature and the visual arts. Much of his emphasis was on accessing the unconscious, as viewed by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Surrealism was a reaction to the philosophy of rationalism, which many felt had caused, through the Industrial Revolution, the disaster of World War I.
Surrealism, as envisioned by Breton, would discard the conscious production of art and would instead rely on the unconscious for inspiration in art. Breton and other surrealist philosophers and artists believed that art as access to the unconscious was more “real” or “true” than rationalist art works. Automatic drawing and writing, in which the artist holds a pencil and tries to clear away the thoughts of the conscious mind, then simply allow the pencil to flow, was considered the closest approach to the unconscious. Surrealists following Breton practiced the Automatism form of Surrealist art.
Veristic surrealists split from Automatism primarily by defining the unconscious as envisioned by psychiatrist Carl Jung. They strongly believed that surrealism could best express the unconscious by attention to and study of artistic form. Veristic work hoped to communicate deeper thoughts by looking at the metaphoric significance of the work and how it related to the universal unconscious.
The universal unconscious was Jung’s theory that all people possess an innate knowledge and understanding of images. Such images are universal in nature, and recur in most literature and art. By looking into the image, Veristic surrealism hoped to gain access to and understand unconscious thoughts and behaviors.
Writer and professor Joseph Campbell later did significant work on this topic, exploring the commonalities among different mythic structures and recurring symbols in myths.
Picasso was a practitioner of the Automatism form of surrealism. His work lets go of traditional artistic practices and results in a more primary form of art. Much of his work is based in his concept that children’s ingenuity can provide essential access to the unconscious.
Salvador Dalí is more of the Veristic school of surrealism. His work juxtaposes contrary or anachronistic images and derives more directly from Dadaism. Dalí very much believed that art should be studied and mastered, and that expression of the unconscious would spring from metaphor.
Most writers who practiced surrealism were French and primarily wrote poetry. However, the “stream of consciousness” style of writing, in works like Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Ulysses by James Joyce, are surrealist in nature, though Woolf and Joyce were not specifically surrealists. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats also advocated the use of automatic writing to further access the unconscious. Yeats’ interest in this matter predates surrealism.
Dalí lent his artistic skills not only to painting but to film as well. In the Hitchcock film Spellbound, Dalí was responsible for the art direction and design of a dream sequence. It is considered by many to be one of the best examples of surrealism in film.